The fire that gutted the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral this week nearly destroyed a building that had stood since the Middle Ages and had come to embody the soul of Paris and perhaps France itself. The speed with which massive donations were offered toward rebuilding the 856-year-old icon is a testament to its importance. It took less than two days to raise nearly $1 billion of the estimated $1.13 billion to $2.3 billion it will take to fix the church, with much of the money coming from French business leaders and ordinary worshipers.
President Emmanuel Macron also said he wants the cathedral rebuilt within five years, noting that France had in the past seen many towns, ports and churches go up in flames and rebuilt them each time. “Our history never stops and … we will always have trials to overcome,» he said. This was a touching sentiment — but also one that should worry many on the African continent.
France and other European countries are home to African artifacts and archives looted during and at the close of the colonial period. Catastrophes such as the one at Notre Dame are a reminder that Europe’s museums and historic buildings — many of which house colonial artifacts — are not invulnerable. A report commissioned by Macron has recommended the return of the artifacts, but many museum directors are reluctant to comply, some hiding behind the specious argument that these objects would be safer and better preserved for posterity in the West.
This is an argument that the Notre Dame fire has consigned to the ash heap. After all, if Europe cannot protect its own artifacts, how can it claim to be the protector of African works?
But there is an even more pressing issue. If a tragedy was to hit any of the museums hosting African treasures, these might be lost without the descendants of their creators ever having the opportunity to experience them. It would be similarly tragic if the same were to happen to the archives where nearly a century of colonial history, including documentation of the numerous atrocities committed against Africans by the colonial authorities, is hidden away. Much of this history has already been deliberately destroyed by European states keen to obliterate evidence of their crimes. If what is left is be lost to natural or man-made calamity, it would make it much harder for Africans to reconstruct an accurate history of what actually happened to them.
This possibility should compel African governments and cultural institutions to press home demands — not requests — for restitution and return of these items and documents. Speaking to the New York Times, Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman who runs an art foundation in Angola, has urged African leaders to “put their foot in the door before it closes” — meaning that they should take advantage of the French president’s limited offer to temporarily return some of the artifacts to Africa in exchanges and loans. But it is clear that such tokenism is not enough.
Would the French accept that Notre Dame’s artifacts be entrusted to another country for safekeeping? That her citizens be required to travel beyond their borders to view them? Of course not. So why would Macron and European museum directors assume that this would be acceptable to Africans? As Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III, who runs a Cameroonian nonprofit, also told the New York Times, “This is not just about the return of African art. When someone’s stolen your soul, it’s very difficult to survive as a people.”
This is in one of the reasons that the artifacts and archives were taken in the first place and why, half a century after decolonization, they remain in European capitals. All colonizers attempt to destroy the culture and history of those they seek to dominate. Today, communities and nations in Africa are much easier to exploit when they cannot coalesce around a shared culture or history. Conversely, they would be much stronger if they could rally their people around an appreciation of what happened in the past and a shared sense of cultural destiny.
The crucial lesson of Notre Dame for Africa is that history matters. And just as the French will spare no effort to rebuild theirs, Africans should spare none to recover and reconstruct ours.
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.